Young adult books: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' author James Thurber picks the best YA titles

Beyond John Green and Veronica Roth: James Thurber compiled his own list of books that he thought young adults might enjoy, and his picks still hold up today.

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    'The Sun Also Rises' was one of author James Thurber's recommendations for a young adult reader.
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USA Today has published its list of the bestselling books of the first half of 2014, and one thing is perfectly clear: the list is dominated by titles aimed at young adults. Some sales are undoubtedly fueled by recent film versions of the books ("The Fault Is In Our Stars" by John Green, "Divergent," by Veronica Roth, and "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, for instance.) Overall, however, there's no denying the fact that young adult titles are the trend du jour.

But what did young adults read before there was John Green and Veronica Roth? James Thurber, the great American humorist who died in 1961, had his own thoughts on the subject – and his own list.

About Thurber, you already know. Along with funny biographical pieces he collected in books like “My Life and Hard Times,” Thurber’s best known for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” his short story about a daydreamer whose fantasies pose a sharp contrast to his ordinary life. The story’s been adapted for film twice, most recently in last year’s movie with Ben Stiller as the title character.

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Like most great writers, Thurber was also an avid reader, but he worried that good books, once placed on a list, acquire an air of obligation that makes people want to read them less, not more. He had noted, for example, that a wonderful and accessible book like Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” turned off his then-young daughter Rosie “merely because it was listed on a reading list.”

There’s the contradiction: the more you try to elevate books by placing them on a list, the more you might doom them to oblivion, embalming them as assigned reading.

In spite of his concerns, though, Thurber couldn’t resist compiling a list of about two dozen books he thought young adults, especially, might enjoy. (Thurber jotted down 18 entries, but a few of them include more than one title.) He made the list for Rosie and sent it along to the headmistress of her boarding school. “This is not, needless to say, my selection of the Great Books, it is merely intended as a stimulation to a young lady who, if she ever reads them, may happily discover that writing may be hard, but also desirable, and as exciting as the theater,” Thurber wrote in a June 1, 1949 letter.

Here are Thurber’s picks for great reads:

1. “Gentle Julia,” by Booth Tarkington – a romantic comedy set in Indiana of the early 20th century, featuring a conflict between the title character and her bratty younger cousin.

2. “Linda Condon,” “Java Head,” “Wild Oranges” by Joseph Hergesheimer – these three fictions established Hergesheimer’s highly descriptive style, a form of storytelling that would influence both Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

3. “The Wanderer” by Alain Fournier – a romantic story of unrequited love that is little-read today, but it's a charming period piece.

4. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald’s timeless story of playboy Gatsby’s rise and fall was popular in Thurber’s time and still holds up today.

5. “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway – The adventures and anxieties of American expatriate Jake Barnes in a novel that was obviously inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences.

6. “Invitation to the Waltz” by Rosamond Lehman – A 17-year-old girl’s coming of age at her first big dance.

7. “This Simian World,” “God and My Father,” by Clarence Day – Day’s humorous tales of his eccentric family at the dawn of the 20th century seemed like a model for Thurber’s autobiographical writings. Day’s young life inspired the classic movie “Life With Father.”

8. “The House in Paris” by Elizabeth Bowen – A psychological novel about a little girl whose day in Paris leads her into a series of mysteries that unlock like a set of nesting dolls, revealing many surprises. It's considered one of Bowen’s best.

9. “A Lost Lady,” “My Mortal Enemy” by Willa Cather – Thurber was a big fan of Cather’s deceptively simple yet elegant style, which is much in evidence in these two fictions.

10. “A Handful of Dust,” “Decline and Fall,” by Evelyn Waugh. – It’s no surprise that the mordantly humorous Thurber would put the wickedly funny Waugh on a list of books for young girls. He assumed – no doubt correctly – that they were old enough to appreciate Waugh’s droll wit.

11. “Heaven’s My Destination,” “The Cabala” by Thornton Wilder – “Heaven’s My Destination,” a comic novel, and “The Cabala,” Wilder’s vivid account of European aristocracy in decline, affirmed his reputation as a novelist, although he’s better know today as the playwright behind “Our Town.”

12. “February Hill,” “The Wind at My Back” by Victoria Lincoln – “February Hill,” a novel about a charming if eccentric family, and “The Wind at My Back,” which assembles three short novels, made Lincoln famous in Thurber’s time, though she’s little-read today. She’s actually better known for “A Private Disgrace,” her nonfiction book about Lizzie Borden.

13. “Blue Voyage” by Conrad Aiken – Although better known as a poet, Aiken advanced himself in the novel “Blue Voyage” as a master of interior monologue, influencing many young writers of his day, such as Malcolm Lowry.

14. “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” by G.Z. Ston – Made into a highly popular film directed by Frank Capra, Stone’s novel chronicles an American missionary in China and her complicated relationship with a local warlord.

15. “Lady into Fox” by David Garnett – Certainly the strangest entry on Thurber’s list, Garnett’s novel concerns how a husband deals with his changed relationship when his wife is mysteriously transformed into a fox.

16. “How to Write Short Stories” by Ring Lardner – Thurber apparently thought that Lardner’s primer on writing short fiction would benefit general readers, too.

17. “The Return of the Soldier” by Rebecca West – During World War I, a shell-shocked soldier returns home to the three women who love him. An especially timely novel in this centennial year of the start of what was, too hopefully, called “The War to End All Wars.”

18. “Miss Lonely Hearts” by Nathaniel West – West’s celebrated tale of an advice columnist for tormented souls who faces quite a few agonies of his own.

Thurber didn’t include “One Man’s Meat,” E.B. White’s classic collection of essays, in his initial list, but in an addendum of sorts within his letter to Rosie’s headmistress, he says of the collection that “White’s perfect writing should be on every reading list.”

Danny Heitman is a Monitor contributor.

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